What Are a Step-Parent’s Custodial Rights During a Divorce?
When step-parents welcome a child into their home — and treat that child as their own even though there is no biological connection — they become a true parent. For that reason, and many others, it is such a shame when stepparents’ rights in Delaware are ignored during divorce proceedings.
If you are a step parent going through a divorce, you experience many of the same emotions that divorcing biological parents go through when faced with losing custody of a child. You do have rights! The first step is making sure your divorce lawyer in Delaware has experience in this area.
Common Step Parent Circumstances in Divorce
Before you get the idea that gaining adoption, custody, or even visitation rights as a step-parent is a cake walk, let us just tell you it’s often not. While Delaware courts are heavily and primarily concerned with the best interests of the child and they do not take custody issues lightly, biological parents have strong rights. In many cases, the courts will rule in favor of the biological parent unless there are extreme mitigating circumstances.
There are also many factors to take into consideration — step parents and child support in Delaware is not a cut-and-dry issue. Who will pay the support and in what amount? Should that party be required to pay? Is child support a requirement of stepparent visitation rights?
In the vast majority of cases, the only time a step parent is awarded primary custody or adoption rights of a child is either when:
A. The biological parent(s) is/are deceased, incarcerated, or otherwise incapable of providing a secure and loving environment for the child
B. The stepparent married the custodial parent of the child and has a strong record of providing financial and emotional support far above and beyond that of the non-custodial biological parent.
The most common issue of stepparent rights in Delaware, however, is visitation rights. When both biological parents are living, the child is already split between two households. When a stepparent divorces a parent, many parents feel that person no longer has a right to see the child or working out visitation between three households would simply be too complicated.
What You Can Do
If you are seeking stepparent custody, there are a few options you will want to consider:
- Adoption before the divorce. If you marry one of the child’s biological parents, you may be able to adopt the children legally if the other parent is deceased or agrees to give up parental rights. In rare cases, a court can compel a biological parent to give up parental rights if they are a bad influence or are not part of the child’s life. If you adopt a child with a partner and then divorce, you have the legal rights of a biological parent and can seek partial or full custody.
- Seeking custody. You can still choose to seek custody of a child or children of your former spouse, even if you did not adopt. Be prepared to prove your involvement with the child.
- Seeking visitation rights. Visitation rights give you the legal right to see the child and may require you to contribute in some financial way to the child’s upbringing. As with custody, this is far more likely if you have legally adopted the children.
- Maintaining a good relationship with your former spouse. Some stepparents work to maintain a good relationship with the parent they are divorcing so they can continue to see the step-child. If a child wants to meet with a stepparent and it is in the best interests of a child, the biological parent may agree to an informal relationship or visits. Without seeking formal visitation or custody rights, however, keep in mind this may have no legal backing. If your former spouse starts dating again or changes their mind, you do not have any legal way to enforce the right to see the children. For this reason, it is important to talk to an attorney about stepparent custody rights as soon as possible once you realize you are getting divorced.
There are other things to consider when you are seeking stepparent rights after a divorce:
- Biological parent involvement. If both biological parents are actively involved in the child’s upbringing, the chances of securing stepparent rights are smaller.
- Your contributions as a stepparent. If you contribute substantially to the financial, medical or other care of the stepchild, you may have more leeway to seek visitation or custody rights. Depriving you of the rights can deprive the child of support they may depend on.
- Your relationship with the child. If you are active in the child’s upbringing and actively pursue stepparent visitation rights or custody, you may have a better chance than a more passive parent. If the stepchild is older and you have a good relationship, a court or judge may take the child’s thoughts about visits into consideration, too.
- The best interests of the child. Courts and judges take a look at what is best for the child. If you are part of the child’s life, make contributions and are a positive and beneficial influence, it is worthwhile to speak to an attorney about your rights. You will want to speak to an attorney as soon as possible before your relationship with your stepchild or stepchildren is affected by the divorce.
Regardless of what the involved parties may feel or think, stepparent rights in Delaware are very real and very definitive. If you have built a relationship with your stepchild, and you want to continue that relationship even after a divorce from the child’s biological parent, find the best divorce lawyer in Delaware you can. Do not let your soon-to-be-ex convince you that you have no right to see the child. Do not take no for an answer unless the judge is the one giving it — and even then, there are always appeals.
At Doroshow, Pasquale, Krawitz, and Bhaya, we know stepparents play an integral role in a child’s life and they have rights. If you’re facing a complicated step-family divorce in Delaware, contact us today. We can help you and your stepchildren get through this difficult time together.